They weren’t supposed to be there.
Officially, the U.S. military had no personnel in Laos, yet there they were – nineteen American technicians manning a top secret radar site on a remote mountaintop near the border of Vietnam. Their mission was so sensitive that the airmen were “temporarily discharged from military service and nominally hired by a defense contractor for the duration of the mission, to help conceal the U.S. military presence in Laos.” (Boston Globe)
They were also good at their jobs. So good that the North Vietnamese became aware of the site’s value, and after an intense aerial bombardment, Lima Site 85 (as it was known) was assaulted by hundreds of troops and special forces intent on destroying the equipment and killing the American team.
The airmen split into groups – one team to man the equipment on top of the hill, and one to try to sleep on a small ledge below the summit to prepare for the next watch. Unexpectedly, however, a team of North Vietnamese commandos managed to scale the sheer cliffs surrounding the mountaintop and quickly killed most of the crew. Those remaining below fought off attackers from below, above and to the side as they awaited sunrise and evacuation. Grenades cascaded on them from above – the Americans either kicked them over the 3000 foot cliff or threw them back.
By the time the helo arrived, there were only four left alive – and two of them were badly wounded. Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. “Dick” Etchberger dragged his wounded comrades to the rescue sling while fighting off the attackers, then grabbed the remaining survivor and held him in his arms as they were hoisted aboard the aircraft.
But a final round of armor-piercing shots was fired, and one of them mortally wounded Chief Etchberger. He died before the helo got back to base.
Forty-two years later, his sons finally received their father’s Medal of Honor from President Obama. Retired Tech. Sgt. John Daniel, one of the wounded men their father saved that day, was there to witness it. His account of Chief Etchberger’s actions on March 11, 1968 is as engrossing as it is humbling (click here to read the article). He knows how precarious their situation was as they fought for their lives on a lonely ledge in Laos.
“I wouldn’t be alive without him,” he said.(AFNS)
Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. “Dick” Etchberger, a Medal of Honor recipient, is our hero of the week.